, Volume 95, Issue 10, pp 939-946,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 17 Jun 2008

Optical properties of the uropygial gland secretion: no evidence for UV cosmetics in birds

Abstract

Ultraviolet (UV) reflectance of the plumage is common in birds and plays an important role in sexual signalling. Recently, it has been proposed that birds are able to modify plumage UV reflectance by the application of uropygial gland secretion. Based on a survey of the optical properties of this secretion from 51 species belonging to 12 avian orders, we show that two main types of uropygial secretions exist, one predominantly found in passerines and one in non-passerines, both reducing relative UV reflectance of a white background (Teflon™ tape). We quantified how each type of secretion (exemplified by blue tit and mallard) affected feather UV reflectance. Both secretions reduced overall brightness and relative UV reflectance of white mallard feathers but hardly affected the reflectance of UV/blue blue tit crown feathers. According to models of avian colour vision, changes in reflectance due to application of the secretion were at or below the discrimination threshold of most birds. We conclude that the uropygial secretion is unlikely to play a major role in modifying plumage UV reflectance. However, the optical properties of the uropygial secretion may have been selected to interfere as little as possible with visual signaling through plumage reflectance.